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Notes From Home

A short tour of non-English-language music for sale in Baltimore

Photographs By Rarah
Ashraf Gharib and Mona El Met of Koko Market

By Ian Nagoski | Posted 4/1/2009

Ask the man on the street how many music stores there are in Baltimore, and he may be able to name a few of the bigger places--Sound Garden, for example. A minority of passionate music-hunters might name funkier holes-in-the-wall selling mostly used stuff. But the truth is that there are dozens of places with new sounds on offer. The trick is that most of the music isn't in English. The majority of these places locally are targeted to immigrant groups, people whose music is utterly underrepresented in the U.S. media, or even on the web.

The need for music from the motherland is something that has been consistent among each wave of immigrants to the United States for as long as the country has existed. The Prussian, Slavic, Anglo, and Scandinavian newcomers of the 18th and 19th centuries carried their songs with them in their memories and performed them for one another, often keeping traditions alive in the New World long after they'd faded away in their native lands. The African diaspora has retained essential aspects of the music of the lost homeland. And, as we all know, the styles commingled and transmogrified into "American" music--jazz, gospel, blues, country, rock, hip-hop.

The process of holding on to the songs of the Old World changed when recording came along in the first decades of the 20th century. Starting in the 1910s and '20s, records were marketed to all of the major immigrant groups: German, Irish, Italian, Bulgarian, Serb, Pole, Arab, Jew, Armenian, Greek, Japanese, Philippine, you name it, the record companies were already going after a share of their earnings by selling immigrants something irresistible--a song from home. For a variety of reasons, including the restructuring of the record business caused by the Depression, the advent of radio, the intermarriage of ethnic groups, and the desire to become capital-A American, by the mid-20th century much of that wave's imported music remained niche "ethnic" material, kept alive in enclaves or simply abandoned by the immigrants' descendants.

Over the past 50 years, waves of immigrants from Asia, South and Central America, and Africa have traveled a path to cultural citizenship cleared by earlier immigrants consisting of long hours of work, demands from the predominant culture to adapt linguistically, and marginal representation in the main cultural venues. Latinos may produce hip-hop (Beatnuts) and Armenians may play rock (System of a Down), but they conform to the existing standards of the style, otherwise they remain marginal and "ethnic." Mainstream America might patronize a Vietnamese restaurant for a taste of the exotic, but no American radio station plays Vietnamese music.

There's really no reason it should be this way, though. Among every cultural subgroup in the United States, there are beloved sad songs; there are amazing peacock-like displays of virtuosity; there are nostalgic stories about the Old Days; there are special songs for important days of the year or moments in life. These are consistencies among us all, despite any differences in language or sound. Why should it be hard to ask the next guy, "What is this song? What does it say? Who is this singing?" The answers could lead to interesting places--maybe to your new favorite music.

Listening to the music of our neighbors is how many of our greatest cultural achievements have been made. Immigrants do it all the time, and if the descendants of immigrants did it half as much, the country would be richer for it. One place to start is immigrants' shops.

 

On the door of the colorfully painted Koko Market (6020 Eastern Ave.), east of Johns Hopkins Bayview campus, there's a sign announcing a $100 reward for a lost cat. "Child grieving," it explains. Inside, above the counter of the crowded shop, there are a score of similar signs; one, hand-written in magic marker in both Arabic and English, pleads for a kidney donor. To one side of the door is a flip-rack of Latino CDs. To the other side is a wooden shelf jammed with hundreds of CDs and cassettes, possibly the only serious Arabic music selection in the city--recordings of prayers, Egyptian electro-pop icons, Moroccan instrumentalists, and decades-old classics of Arabic classical and film music.

Mona El Met and her husband Ashraf Gharib, who run the shop, and their curly-headed 7-year-old Shady, are the image of the ideal immigrant family, full of good humor, generosity, and a work ethic that baffles the imagination. Mona, a smiling and gentle person who chooses her words carefully, is sheltered from the cold in a long, black coat. Ashraf, who drove a cab in Baltimore from 1995 until 2005, looks and sounds the part of a cab driver--gregarious and flowing in his speech and layered in flannel work shirts. Their family business not only sells music and food but also acts as a community hub, hence the signs.

"We try to serve our community and all they need," Gharib says with subdued pride. "If somebody needs help, if he needs a lawyer [we help]. . . . We don't collect anything."

Natives of the Suez Canal region of Egypt, they moved to Baltimore in 1995 and bought the store in 2006 from another Egyptian who returned home. Gharib's opinion of the city is unmitigatedly positive. Beaming, he says, "I lllove it," as if the words themselves taste good in his mouth. "Some black, some white--it's a mixed city, and everyone enjoys [it.]"

Musically, though, Baltimore doesn't represent much for the Arab world. There is no music in Arabic and very little Arab presence on radio or television. The Gharib and El Met are pleased by the recent trend of hookah bars opening in the city--they represent a rare point of contact between Arab culture and the predominant American culture. "Young people are interested in other cultures," Gharib points out, and he's pleased that they are beginning to see broader images of Arabs. "Arabs can have fun, [they] can dance--not just pray."

Only a very small minority of the city's population speaks Arabic, though. Egypt's great music is deeply rooted in an inexorable relationship of the word with its sound, with its meaning, tone, and pronunciation. How can a Westerner even begin to appreciate it? But a song, Gharib says is not just the words: "It's how it makes [you] feel--it's what the music is doing in you."

Mediterraneans are famously cosmopolitan in their tastes, and Gharib says that the music he listened to in Egypt not only included Abdel Halim Hafez, Om Kalsoum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and Fairuz (a list of names which, given American equivalencies, is roughly like Elvis, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin), but also songs in Italian, French, and English. "Most of the great love songs are French songs," he says, "but you never hear them [here]."

Shady has held his tongue as long as possible and has to express his interests, too--a raccoon they saw in their yard and Batman. Prompted, he names Tamer Hosny, Hamaki, and Nancy Ajram, all modern electronic-backed stars, as Arabic singers he likes.

A sampling of cassettes bought at Koko Market are all of mid-century masters. "These are old," Gharib warns. Two are by Om Kalsoum (also spelled Umm Kulthum, among other variants), a singer whose power and significance is hard to overstate. Simply the single most important voice of the entire Arab world in the 20th century, she recorded hundreds of epic and often enraptured performances beginning shortly after her debut in Cairo in the early '20s as a teenager nearly until her death in the mid-'70s. Starting out as the daughter of a humble imam in a tiny northern Egyptian village, by the 1950s she had become the most famous and powerful woman in the Arab world, courted by royalty and admired by the European elite. Her peak performances of a half-century ago drive people into euphoria. So, that was five bucks well spent.

Another tape with a '60s-era photo of a middle-aged gentleman in a three-piece suit turns out to feature the music of Mohammed Abdel Mottaleb. (Gharib translates the artist's name from the Arabic text on the tape's insert.) After several minutes of exacting orchestral flourishes as overture, his voice enters in its lowest register singing one word, "Habib, habib . . ." ("Honey, honey . . .") purposefully introducing the tones of the song for several minutes in preparation for the vocal acrobatics and permutating rhythmic frames which follow uninterrupted over the side of the tape. Biographical data isn't forthcoming through the supposed mega-mind of the internet, so more serious investigation will be required.

 

Hands down, the oldest record store in Baltimore is Kentrikon (4704 Eastern Ave.), opened the summer of 1954 by John Morekas. His cousin, Nitsa Morekas, who describes herself as "sixtysomething," began working at the shop while in high school and has run it continuously since 1960. "We sold 78s! [What other local store] can say that?" she asks.

The only vinyl records left in the shop are a few hundred stashed behind the counter--relics of the radio show that John and Nitsa hosted on WBMD-AM for a half-century until 2006, when the station closed. The collection include LPs of demotika, the rural folk music of Greece; home-cut acetates and small-press 45s of Baltimorean Greek groups from the '50s and '60s; zeimbekikos, the contemplative solo dance of Greek men, inherited from the warrior class of the Ottoman Empire and perhaps the Doric period before that; hymns of the Greek Orthodox church; laika, the mid-century urban popular music; performances on lyra, the Cretean fiddle--a veritable trove of Hellenic pride.

The store is festooned in copies of classical sculpture, flowery Greek-language greeting cards for weddings, birthdays, christenings, and sympathy, little white dresses for girls' confirmations, religious icons, and about 500 CDs spanning five decades of Greek music.

Kentrikon is Greek for "center," a word which neatly summarizes both the origin of the store and Nitsa Morekas' understanding of its purpose in the Greek community. It began as an extension of John Morekas' radio show to fill a need in the community, a point of contact for new arrivals from Greece. "It was a little hub. The immigrants didn't know where to go," she says. "We did it for the community. It wasn't a money thing." Since the '60s, Kentrikon's income has been dependant as much on travel booking, shipping services, and tchotchkes as it is on Morekas' extroversion and community activism as a leader in the Greektown business alliance and organizer of Greek music concerts.

Nitsa Morekas arrived in the United States with her family in 1951 from Kalamata, located in southern Greece. Her father, a bankrupt merchant, brought his family to Baltimore to join his brothers and raise money for the dowries of his two daughters. By the end of the '50s, Nitsa had fallen "in love," as she puts it, with the great bouzouki players, and she glows as she describes the memory of a concert by the speed-demon virtuoso Manolis Chiotis, the first concert she ever attended at the Baltimore Civic Center: "He was the king! I was trembling when I interviewed him [for the radio show]." Chiotis was at once a blazing, showy performer and an innovator who set a new standard for his instrument--the bouzouki's Eddie Van Halen, sort of.

The thriving local Greek musical community of the '50s also included a club called the Acropolis on South Broadway in Fells Point, then such a rough neighborhood that Morekas' cousin wouldn't allow her out of the car when he went to collect the club's advertisements for the radio show. When she was old enough to get in, she remembers it as "very empty, a few sailors." The situation changed in 1960 with the release of the film Never on Sunday, which popularized Greek culture in the United States. After that, she says, the club was so crowded that "for years, you couldn't get in."

Touring Greek musicians, including the great composer and bouzouki player Yiannis Papaioannou, played there. Part of a generation of urban folk musicians whose style developed in the underground hash dens of Athens and Piraeus and heavily influenced by the music of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Smyrna (Izmir in Turkish) to the east, Papaioannou and his peers were censored by the mid-20th century Greek dictatorship to leave behind the seedier references in their songs. Funny then, that he wound up playing on the seedy waterfront of Baltimore.

Anomalously, amidst the clean and healthy faces of pop stars in Kentrikon's CD racks stares the face of the greatest of the Greek dope-devotee songwriters, Markos Vamvakaris. He was what is called in Greek slang a mangas, which roughly translates as "badass," or a mortis, a term which the music researcher Charles Howard has written, "refers to a person who is both tough and elegant, the cool bearer of knife and suit." Vamvakaris' gruffly sung descriptions of heartbreak, drugs, and prison defined the underworld of urban Greece in the '30s, and like Robert Johnson in the United States at the same time, once heard and understood, it's the kind of thing people run to get a tattoo about. Playing his music for someone's Greek grandmother, however, would elicit reactions something like playing Ludacris in church. It's not "nice" music, but it is wide and strident with real, heroic truth-telling poetry within it--the voice of a brilliant, virtuosic, and hardened social outcast.

In Fells Point and Highlandtown, the influx of Latino immigrants and their culture has all but taken over certain blocks. The music shops catering to immigrants from South and Central America, Azteca Music and Ritmo Azteca on Eastern Avenue and Acapulco Musica and Video and Don Pedro's Musica Latina on South Broadway, are likewise utterly overwhelming. The walls are covered in ostentatious cowboy boots and soccer jerseys, floorspace is filled with blankets and luggage. Spinning tower racks are full of Spanish language DVDs. Phone cards dangle from racks by the counters. And most of all, the CD bins are overflowing with a numbing variety of musics: half-naked ladies in outrageous poses gaze from half-lidded eyes on the covers of discs of Argentinian cumbias while Che Guevara's icon gazes from within the psychedelic graffiti surrounding it on Mexican cumbia discs; Mexican hip-hoppers curl their lips amidst backgrounds of gothic decay; sharply-dressed Tejano singers grin below their cowboy hats; elvin Ecuadorian faces sprout from embroidered collars and fringy vests. Each shop's inventory threatens to rival that of Sound Garden's. For any Anglophone with an abiding passion for music, visiting these shops is like counting the stars. It's enough to make you feel like a little, tiny ant. And it is sadly inevitable that these places can only be given short shrift here.

We turn our attention instead to Ebenezer (301 S. Broadway), the sturdy and humble shop run by Mary Mejia since July 2000. A gentle, plainspoken middle-aged woman, she sits behind a glass display case filled with religious tracts and usher's pins inscribed in Spanish. A native of the village of Cuyamel near the port of Cortes in Honduras, Mejia met her husband, a sailor who had been based out of Baltimore since the mid-'70s, at a high-school graduation party in the town of San Pedro. In 1981, she emigrated to Baltimore to join him and worked various of jobs, cooking, and cleaning. In the late '90s, her son was diagnosed with cancer. "I was washing dishes one morning, and I looked out the window, and I said, 'Lord, what can I do?'"

The answer to her question was to sell music and books. The pastor of her Pentecostal church granted her shelf space in the church to sell her wares. Breathlessly and vividly, she recalls that a traveling salesman passing though town stopped at her church to see if there was a Spanish-language store for Christian music and books. Her pastor, noting that this was not simply by happenstance but by providence, directed the traveler to her house. "It was my first big buy [of inventory]," she says, revealing that like any good owner of a mom-and-pop store, she has a head for numbers, continuing, "I can still remember how much I spent. I can tell you it was not that much."

Two years later, her pastor, who she credits with "vision," suggested that the storefront up for sale at the corner of Broadway and Gough would be the right location for her. It is here that for the past eight years, she has worked among Bibles, leather Bible jackets, tambourines (big ones for adults, little ones for children), key chains, certificates for confirmation and marriage, and about 1,000 CDs of music from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and South America.

"People who serve the Lord, we listen to music," she says by way of explanation. Some of the discs she sells are like the music sung in her church--earnest, sweepingly melodic songs which walk the blurry line between hymn and power ballad--by singers like Danny Barrios, Daniel Calveti, Doris Machin, and Roberto Orellana.

In one corner, there are 10 or so discs by an unsmiling and startlingly beautiful Guatemalan woman named Maria Tecun. Mejia says that she had never heard of Tecun, who sings in native Guatemalan dialect, until her shop opened, but began to sell her discs because of demand for them. Tecun's singing on "Nada Ni Nadie" brings to mind at times Sara Carter's fragile, declamatory singing on the Carter Family's "Poor Orphan Child," with moments of huskier full-throated earnestness and pleading speech. Her voice is tastefully and demurely clothed at mid-tempo by syncopated piano, understated percussion, melodic brass flourishes, and nasal synthesizer. It's easy to imagine her as the soundtrack for a moment looking out the window, over the dishes, and asking "What do I do?" Tecun has the reassuring and grounded gracefulness one would want then. At Ebenezer, a handwritten sign on florescent cardstock below her discs reads, maria tecun: un talento para dios.

There are three grocery stores catering to West Africans between the 4700 and 6500 blocks of Harford Road, each offering a selection of CDs along with groaning masses of yam flour, spices, toiletries, and nearly every fish, fowl, or beast imaginable in smoked and/or dried form. Global Food Market (4707 Harford Road) has a room to one side as crowded with the detritus of small schoolchildren--crayon drawings, a nap-time mattress, books--as it is with Nigerian family dramas, supernatural thrillers, and action movies on video CDs (a format popular in Asia and Africa which stores MPEG video of similar resolution to VHS but is semi-compatible with DVD players). A few half-forgotten racks and one lonely bastard plastic tub are jammed with CDs of Christian praise singers. Hanging from alligator clips across one wall are more discs of the bubbling Nigerian high-life performers of the recent past like Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe and the Oriental Brothers alongside the odd disc by performers better known to Western listeners like Sunny Adé, Fela, and Madonna. Just outside the playpen/media department is the butchering area, where two skinned goat carcasses are stacked, one on top of the other.

All in One International Food Market (6521 Harford Road) is a bit tidier. The Ghanian woman behind the counter is too busy with customers to chat, but when asked recommends a disc by Ofori Amponsah, aka Mr. All 4Real. The cover looks a little like an R. Kelly record, but the music turns out to be a natural extension of the ebullient high life of '70s West Africa, mixed with a bits of reggae and Lionel Richie and backed by the programmed electronics that provide the majority of the instrumental accompaniment on recordings everywhere on earth over the past decade. Amponsah has a lovely, elastic voice and positive thumbs-up vibe, singing his loving devotion to his lady. When he sings, "Ooh, I want to marry you / oh, I'm ser-i-ous!" it's blushing and swooning time.

Behind the counter of the nearby Olympic International Food Market (6315 Harford Road) is Alice Mochu of Nairobi, Kenya, who has only been in the United States for six months, staying with her brother, a nursing student. Asked where to hear Kenyan music, she points not to the rack of CDs behind her but to YouTube, recommending Christian singers: Ben Githae, Loise Kim, Ruth Wamuyu, John Dematthew, and Salim Junior. Upon investigation, it is the last of these who stands out immediately, partly for the accompaniment of a real drummer (rather than electronics) whose kick-drum pounds out a driving four-on-the-floor even as he splashes over the snare in amazingly complex rat-a-tat fills. Even more astounding is Salim Junior's flat-picked acoustic guitar playing, which brings to mind the past generation of guitarists like S.E. Rogie of Sierra Leone, whose style seems all but lost on recordings available in the West. Salim Junior is part of a veritable scene of Kenyan guitarists, most of whom perform graphically sexual material for clubgoers. He, however, restricts himself to Christian-compatible material, although he sometimes corrupts a well-known hymn for satire's sake. Anyway, hearing him alone made the trip through North Baltimore's African shops worthwhile.

Emerging from the back of the shop is Gilbert Akanno, "President & CEO" of Olympic according to his business card. Akanno, an ethnic Igbo from Nigeria, moved to Baltimore 20 years ago to study accounting at Morgan State University and is busy practicing his vocation in the shop's basement office as tax time looms. A serious man, he is not prone to expansiveness or philosophizing. The purpose of the shop, he says, is "something to bring cash. This is something on the side." He admits readily to two sides to his musical taste, one which bespeaks his 20 years in Baltimore: Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, James Brown, and Barry White. The other side relates to his faith and his community in the Church--Nigerian gospel, praise songs of the same kind found piled at the Global Food Market. Asked for recommendations of personal favorites, he is careful to choose English-language discs from the selection behind the counter.

One of them is called Total Prayer by Evangelist Sister Juliana Okah. It consists of two long tracks, 20 minutes each, beginning with a two-minute song before launching into 15 minutes of prayer, a litany of thanks to God, rebuking of enemies in the form of Satan, witches, wizards, negative inherited legacies, etc., and asking for protection for each person in her life and each aspect of her work life. It is, in fact, an extraordinarily all-encompassing view of life, plainly laid bare on a shiny, little disc.

It is possible that Akanno understood that he was passing along a piece of his deepest-held beliefs and most precious wishes, but he could not have known if it would be understood by the listener he sold it to. This is the power of recorded music, to remember and re-speak those things we hold dear--the rarely articulated truths of life's trials, poetry praising the world's beauty, wishes and prayers for deliverance to a better world, memories of love found and homes lost.

In these waning years of physical media, it is worth retaining the potential for sharing music, not just as a blizzard of data and not simply through the consolidated sources of the ready-made media, but through the multitude of stories and songs carried within the people around us. Recordings are more than commodities or fetish objects, they are conduits carrying some of the best parts of us, musician and listener alike.

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